The Question of Authority in The Educational Relationship: The Privilege of The Coaches Position

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The Question of Authority in The Educational Relationship: The Privilege of The Coaches Position
From the Edited Volume
Edited By:
Catherine Langridge


Sports activity is a particularly rich moment of possibility within the process of defining human identity. Especially as far as the childhood period is concerned, where the central role is played by the figure of the coach: an educational key figure of non-formal education, capable of promoting and improving children’s cognitive abilities, their sense of self, identity, social status, develop skills and strengths, self-esteem and confidence. Body movement, basis of children’s social and cognitive development, can and should be promoted by the figure of the coach. Designed with this perspective, the SOCCER Project was conducted by the University of Turin, Italy, in 2021, aimed at the understanding of the educational role of the coach within the sports scene. Through the research pathway, it was possible to highlight a specific need on the part of coaches of childhood soccer teams: the major criticality, of the reflexive formation of coaches, is to clarify the question of authority within the management of the educational relationship. This paper aims to shed light on this management by hypothesizing a possible privilege in the position held by coaches.



Educational Relationship, Educational Role, Position, Reflexivity, Sport


Sports experience is a particularly significant experience from a formative point of view, in the formation of character and personal, social and relational skills (Isidori, 2012, p.8). In particular, motor activity in childhood is central in the discovery of one’s corporeity and its relationships with the outside world, which are essential for social life. Following Giuseppe Mari’s thinking, which rediscovers the importance of the “educational opportunity” of sports present in the habit of a practice of freedom (Mari, 2019, p. 35), sports activity plays a fundamental role in the childhood period. Taking the Italian context as a reference, for example, sports is the third largest educational reality in our country: more than 60 percent of the population included in the 5-14 age group practice recreational-motor activities assiduously (Martelli, 2010, p. 45). Sport is thought as a practice of freedom, capable of promoting differences and divergences, precisely because it is “supervised by the adult” (Bondioli, 2019, p. 77), who does not leave the scene but accompanies and indulges the performance of the motor activity.

Childhood sports activity is part of a path of discovery of one’s motor scheme, based on the first knowledge of physical and postural aspects, leading to the consolidation of skills and technical competencies congruent to a sport discipline. Such an approach emphasizes how, equal to a focus on the development of cognitive skills, there is a need for a corporeity education that is a synthesis of mind and body (Bellantonio, 2014, p. 36).

The sports experience itself, however, has critical issues that hinder the appropriateness of sports in childhood: among the major critical issues, two in particular concern the educational figure of reference in the field of childhood sports, namely the coach. In fact, coaches may either not be fully aware of their educational role or may even be inclined to deny it.

Coaches are called upon to propose and promote their own idea of change, through their “relational style” (Sabatano, 2015, p. 139) with which to conduct sports activities. The direction promoted by the coach exposes: it requires a stance and an assumption of responsibility on the part of those who educate for mental and physical well-being in childhood.

It follows that there is a need for formation aimed at exercising the reflective skills that are essential to the exercise of the educational role: once the implicit educational role in the figure of the coach is recognized, an approach is needed that, according to Wade Gilbert and Pierre Trudel, integrates reflection within the training path of coaching practice (Gilbert & Trudel, 2006, p.114). Donald Schön (1983, p. 16) highlights how coach practice is a reflective practice, conceptualized as a problem-solving process, and even the formation to become a coach requires a focus on developing reflective skills.

In fact, a reflexive approach is aimed not only at the recognition of one’s educational tasks; thanks to deepening through a “pedagogically oriented lens” (Jones, 2006, p. 9) the coach is assisted in understanding, and thus accepting of their role within the educational scene, in an attempt to “improve the quality” (Milani, 2010 p. 113) of one’s professional skills within the educational relationship.

The SOCCER Project Experience

The SOCCER project was designed precisely with the aim of solving these two critical issues, which are present in the formation of educational figures working in the world of childhood sports. SOCCER was born out of the need that emerged, on the part of soccer school coaches, to have greater awareness of their educational role, and in an effort to provide a formative path that would also make it accepted, emphasizing the importance of assuming responsibility for one’s duties within the educational scene.

Carried out in 2021 by a research team from the Department of Philosophy and Educational Sciences, University of Turin, Italy, it consisted of two consecutive editions. Both conducted in a telematic manner, it was possible to involve numerous soccer school coaches, most of whom were working with childhood-age children from the Piedmont region. In both editions, the structure and development of the interventions was aimed at promoting coaches’ awareness of the educational dynamics inherent in the sports experience, as well as their acceptance through the development and consolidation of their reflective skills.

In addition to the intervention of numerous experts, from the sports-football and pedagogical fields, group reflective practices were conducted; in particular, the so-called 3RPlay were used – a particular version of reflective practices studied by a research team from Piedmont (Nosari & Guarcello, 2021; Giani, 2021). The 3RPlay (Reflecting, Researching, Replying) were the focus of the seminar activity, proposing possible “suspended” situations to coaches in childhood sports, with the aim of generating questions. Everyday life scenarios, raising a problem without giving an unambiguous interpretation, involved coaches in an “open space” (Nosari & Guarcello, 2022a p. 72) where there are no predefined questions or immediate answers.

A novelty introduced by the 3RPlay was the evaluative moment: given the great importance of the question within reflective practices, and in an effort to provide a substantial outcome for the coaches involved, the “measure” by which change was evaluated over the course of the different meetings involved the questions themselves that emerged from the coaches. It was possible to evaluate the course of the project thanks to an evaluation plan, qualitative in nature, based on the collection and analysis of questions related to each situation encountered in the meetings. Four possible categories of questions were hypothesized (Nosari & Guarcello, 2021): the realist, operational, causal and hypothetical questions.

The realist question category involved questions (who? what? when?) asked in an attempt to obtain more descriptive aspects of reality. Operational questions (how to? how to handle?) were intended to investigate the practical ways of handling the situation. The category of causal questions covered those questions that referred to both the efficient cause (because of what?) and the final cause (in the name of what?). The last type of questions, the hypothetical ones, were aimed at investigating possible alternative scenarios to existing situations (what if instead?).

This particular evaluative framework was articulated through two fronts (Nosari & Guarcello, 2022a p. 75). The first front refers to a self-assessment path by the coaches involved themselves. Through an evaluation of the proposed questions it was possible to derive their own questioning style, with which they approach and problematize different situations. The second front, on the other hand, was conducted by the research team and attempted, through the collection, classification and analysis of all questions, to measure changes in investigating reality by the project participants.

Through both evaluation fronts, it was possible to bring out a specific need of the coaches. Precisely through the exercise of coaches’ reflective skills, recognized in the different possible categories, a need emerged on the part of the participants to clarify their position of authority within the educational relationship. By different types of questions, for example, on the sense of authority (what does it mean to assume responsibility?), on consistency (does interpreting an authority figure mean never changing one’s mind?), on evaluation (what is the relationship between error and authority?), or on managing situations (should one maintain the same position even if one realizes it is wrong?) it was possible to highlight the need for coaches to deepen their understanding of the educational relationship.

By recognizing their educational role, through the formation of a critical-reflective approach, teachers acquire skills and tools to support their professional activity. The transversal skills (Guarcello, 2020) fostered through a reflective approach such as that of the Soccer Project are fundamental in the daily practice of both, youth coaches and childhood school teachers; in fact, the next step, planned during 2023, will be the Stereo Project, also extended to the formal education field and again conducted by the same research team. It will cover the most critical areas of the children’s school scene, such as child protection, respect for rules, and the role of parents, as well as many other aspects that will help to better understand dynamics and situations specific to educational practice with children.

The Educational Relationship

The question of the position of authority within the educational relationship is located within a wider and deeper structure, which characterizes both the theoretical idea and the practical action of the educational scene: the question of authority brings the educational relationship back to the issue of the definition of personal identity.

Since education refers to the possible change of human identity during different moments of existence, of which childhood is certainly one of the most significant periods, special attention should be given to the general concept of identity. One possible key might present identity thought of as a boundary. In these terms, identity would act with four particular actions: it delimits, distinguishes, unifies and relates. As a boundary it delimits, it acts as a limit beyond which identity would no longer be so. Through the boundary, it marks difference by distinguishing and affirming different possible identities. The identity as a boundary is also a margin that holds together and gathers into a single unity the set of elements it contains. Finally, it is proper for a boundary to open to confrontation with the other, and to allow identity to measure itself against otherness.

While maintaining these characteristics, human identity is marked by an additional condition: it is in fact an identity constantly to be sought, to be traced, to be defined. It is in fact an expression of four implicit traits: unity, historicity, unrepeatability and educability. A human being remains the same man yesterday, today and tomorrow while changing throughout his history. It is also a singular change peculiar to each individual human being, but above all, it cannot be anticipated; there is no marked boundary for the human being that is already given.

Referring to childhood as a particular moment within the process of human definition, human beings have the opportunity to discover the traits of their character solely in their relationship with the outside world. The definition of human identity necessarily takes place through confrontation with the other: only as a result of a question from the outside (who are you?) is it possible to respond with an affirmation of oneself (it is me!). Thanks to relationships with otherness, to dialogue thought of as a practice of caring (Cambi, 2021), it is possible to define the boundaries of one’s identity, which is why the educational relationship can be thought of as the “condition of possibility” (Nosari, 2020) necessary for change with transformative scope and values.

At this point, however, the consequent question might be: what are the relationships that, in the course of our existence, can be defined as “educational”? In today’s world, the process of human definition is accompanied by the encounter and confrontation with numerous figures. Entering into a relationship with children can influence the direction of change and the process of character formation.

By educational relationship, we refer to a relationship that intentionally takes charge of directing the process of change (Cunti, 2015, p. 203). The coach has an educational role because in acting, he or she is called upon to indicate and achieve goals according to an equally educational purpose. Intentionality, proper to an educational action, takes on the responsibility due to taking a stance according to the final cause.

It becomes questionable why we then talk about a position of authority when referring to an educational relationship. It is precisely the definition of goals and direction that require an action of authority on the part of the educational intentionality, which makes implicit an asymmetry between the different protagonists of the scene.

Among the different roles of authority, we could bring in as examples references to the two main educational fields: formal education and non-formal education. Regarding formal education, the role of authority is clearly played by the teacher, inside the school context. The coach, on the other hand, is one of the possible figures called upon to indicate, evaluate and correct the educational process with regard to extracurricular activities. Children and coaches are not on the same plane: the latter are called upon to manage the dynamics between authority and freedom, allowing and forbidding, encouraging and correcting, delegating and deciding.

However, precisely the management of asymmetry places the coach in a distinctly different position than other possible authority roles: a special, and in a sense, privileged position.

The Privileged Position of Coaches

Reviewing the most significant literature on the subject, following the lead of some authors who have made contributions to this reflection (Arnold, 1997; Isidori, 2009; Farinelli, 2005), including and especially about the childhood period (Farné, 2009), it is possible to refer to coaches through specific characteristics.

While the position of coaches, on the one hand, seems to resemble the role of a teacher, proposing and promoting significantly oriented change, on the other hand it acquires a number of traits that differentiate them significantly from various other educational authorities. These differences characterize their position, granting them a privilege in the educational proposal, due essentially to the structure of the sports activity. Indeed, it is possible to recognize the privilege in the type of activity, emotional involvement and social recognition.

Sports activity is an experience universally recognized as an engaging, exciting and compelling type of activity. The nature of sports attracts, both as players and spectators. The tension toward practicing or observing a sports competition is across ages, gender, and social conditions. We are talking about a global, universal experience with ancient historical roots. Human beings need movement, and it is through movement as their natural habitat where they form their identity and relationships with the outside world.

Those who live the sports experience are often inclined to experience it in a totalizing way: sports get passionate, sports become passion. Even as children we become passionate about great athletes, great sports personalities who can inspire and act as role models to follow. Sport is emotion: sports victories are exhilarating moments, unique experiences enjoyed in the course of a lifetime. Defeats, likewise, burn and incentivize change, improvement, and training.

Finally, since the days of ancient Greece, where the best athletes were guaranteed the highest honors, even in modern society being a sportsman guarantees broad and established social recognition. Athletes are often the focal points of Western societies; while this on the one hand can be a critical issue (the excess of professionalism in sports, having to get there at all costs, etc.), societies are investing numerous resources in education that promotes movement, wellness in both physical and mental health.

The structure from sporting activity, described therefore in its particular type, emotional involvement and social recognition, inevitably places the role of the authority figure in a central and decisive position, privileged over other educational figures. This privilege translates, in essence, into three characteristics that can be resources in the sporting experience: the coach is engaging, can reach deep inside, and is often perceived as an ally.

First, coaches are almost always engaging. From the earliest childhood classes, by working on emotion and teaching methodologies (Cremonini, 2015), coaches have the opportunity to engage without tiring, to coach without weighing down the lesson. Sports activity favors coaches, who can come up with repetitive and even boring technical drills. Here there is a clear difference with the school system, unfortunately often perceived as boring by a class of children sitting for too many hours at their desks.

Coaches can reach deep inside each person. Although teachers often manage to create strong, unbreakable bonds over the years, coaches have a unique opportunity granted only to them. They know intimate, personal, private aspects of the lives of their children and athletes: they are repositories of secrets and confidences that neither teachers nor parents could ever know. Coaches are present. They are present in victory and in the joy of exultation. They are present in defeat and in the tears shed in a hug. They are present in the fatigue of training, as they are present in tales during a road trip or in phone calls during the summer. Coaching means being present, aware of the great emotional involvement guaranteed by sporting activity.

Coaches are an ally. It is precisely in this characteristic that the greatest, and in some ways unfair, difference with teachers is marked. Coaches need not be lied to, because their role is not called to give positive or negative grades. If final evaluation is a task solely delegated to the competition, with its ranking, coaches will share equally in successes and failures, joys and disappointments. In sporting activity, the purpose of the educational proposal is evident: coaches’ evaluations are not descriptive, but normative, with a focus on the to-do and what still needs to happen. Coaches can be severe, they can be demanding, but they will always be perceived as an ally, as a personal resource, because goals are agreed and measured within a path shared and accepted by both athlete and coach.

These characteristics describe engaging coaches who are capable of creating deep relationships and who are always perceived as a resource by his or her children or athletes. Such privilege enhances the educational opportunities of sporting activity, thanks to an authority figure so rich in possibilities.

Emerging Trends and Conclusions

A possible emerging trend capable of promoting children’s development and learning in a childhood school context could precisely be directed at the game-sport context: if game and sport are recognized in their educational capacity, it becomes central for childhood school teachers to be able to integrate them coherently within the educational proposal.

On the one hand, the literature seems to agree on the use of the device of game for educational purposes, with the definition of real “Serious Game”: the game, thought of as an educational experience, is defined as “serious” in the moment in which its purpose is aimed at training and learning, rather than mere entertainment (Michael & Chen, 2006). Through the tool of the game and thanks to the strategic attempt of gamification (Petruzzi, 2015), numerous activities aimed at children aimed at their development and learning are already being designed and planned.

On the other hand, sports activity represents another emerging trend that can foster children’s involvement and participation within situations strongly characterized by educational possibilities. The sports proposal, through research such as this, is changing its orientation from a “by objectives” didactics to a “by competencies” didactics (Cremonini, 2015), which succeeds in focusing not only on the physical development of the athlete, but also on the cognitive, social and relational development of the child.

Evidence of this emerging trend is the attempt, now consolidated by an experience of many years, to propose a new type of educational offerings in childhood school conducted by Swiss Olympic. The project, called “School in Motion” (, has researched, studied and tested the link between movement and learning: the whole school experience of children is articulated in a promotion of a healthy lifestyle based on movement. The study of “traditional” subjects such as math, grammar or geography, for example, is rethought through games and activities conducted in movement, through running or in the gym. In a project like School in Motion, game and sport are integrated within traditional teaching to promote children’s learning and involvement in different subjects, fostering the formation of relational bonds and preventing possible bullying or deviance attitudes.

This new trend makes the position occupied by the educational figure of authority even more central; it becomes important to create a strong link between formal education and sports activities, between teacher and coach. Through increasing collaboration between schools and sports associations, the position of teachers could be rethought in light of the recognized privilege inherent in the position of coaches. In fact, the position of coaches, in managing the dynamics of authority and freedom, is one that can therefore be described as privileged: this privilege, given by the particular type of activity, emotional involvement and social recognition, allows coaches to be engaging, to create strong relationships and to be perceived as an ally by children and athletes.

Recognizing the privileged position of coaches, it becomes important to understand this position not in an isolated way: indeed, the proposal does not intend to observe and describe only the sporting point of view. In fact, it is necessary to use the insights from sports activity to place them within a relationship with the other main figure in the formal educational context, namely the teacher. Coaches and teachers could share a space that is not merely thought of as a co-presence, but capable of generating a co-planning of the educational intervention: school and sport could work together while respecting the differences of their respective fields, but in the convergence of the socio-cultural proposal. The proposal, aimed at the acquisition and consolidation of those “soft” (Nosari & Guarcello, 2022b), non-cognitive and human-directed skills central to children’s growth, looks to a renewed interaction between teachers and coaches of the childhood period.


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